A Song in Her Heart

Piano teacher shares a lifelong love for music

Story and photos by Dianna Troyer

LeNell Griffin plays “Consider the Lilies.” When she turns 88 this August 14, she plans to play her own birthday song.

An epiphany struck LeNell Griffin in junior high school as she watched a pianist perform.

“A woman came to play for our school operetta,” the Rupert resident recalls. “More than anything, I wanted to learn to play piano and to do it all my life. I promised my heavenly father that if my parents bought me a piano, I would teach others.

“And I’ve kept that promise for 69 years.”

LeNell, 87, has taught students from age 6 to adults and even some retirees.

“I’ve had all kinds and taught them all to have a lifelong love of piano and music,” she says.

In Minidoka and Cassia counties, she has become known as a beloved musical matriarch, the pianist to call to perform at weddings, reunions, graduations, Christmas celebrations, receptions and funerals.

“People offer to pay me to play at funerals, but I refuse,” LeNell says. “How can I ever accept money for that? The joke among local morticians is that I’ve been to more funerals than they have.”

Jeff Rasmussen, who co-owns a funeral home in the area, is one of her former students as well as a longtime friend. He says he still remembers his lessons from ages 8 to 11 with LeNell.

“She’s a great teacher, and her emphasis on modulation, the circle of fifths and tips on sight reading gave me a firm foundation,” says Jeff, who majored in organ performance at Brigham Young University.

LeNell’s decades-long love of piano music began when she was 14.

“Each lesson cost $1, and every Saturday at 8 a.m., I walked a mile to my teacher’s house with my money,” LeNell recalls. “No one ever had to remind me to practice. In fact, it was just the opposite. My mother would tell me it was time for me to quit playing and do dishes or help with other housework.”

Adobe stock illustration by Argus

As she became more proficient, LeNell’s appreciative parents asked her to play for holidays and family celebrations.

“The piano stayed at my parents’ home, and they’d ask me to play at Christmas or for birthdays,” she says.

LeNell also plays requests from her husband, Theron, her biggest fan. “She plays my favorite song, ‘Danny Boy,’ or music from the 1950s,” Theron says.

After they were married in 1954, LeNell wanted her own piano and researched different brands, finally choosing one from Sohmer & Co.

“I paid it off at $28 a month,” she says. “It’s so well made that it rarely needs to be tuned.”

Theron is proud of his wife’s musical prowess.

“After having her piano for 2 years, you could put any piece of music in front of her, and she could play it without practicing,” he says.

LeNell says the more she played, she realized she prefers the key of F.

“I’ve always liked the sound of it and how all the notes just seem to fall into place,” she says.

Keeping Her Promise

LeNell usually had 23 students at a time until the fall of 2021 when she and Theron were diagnosed with COVID-19. “I cut back to four,” she says. “He was hospitalized for three months, and we couldn’t have people coming into the house for lessons, so I did lessons on Facetime. We’re better now, so students started coming to the house again last fall.”

When she started teaching, LeNell says she detested certain instructional methods and vowed to never do them.

“You’d hear the horror stories,” she says. “Some teachers would take a ruler and smack students’ fingers if they accidentally hit the wrong key. How much fun is that? Why would any teacher do such a thing? I made sure all my students knew I loved them.”

LeNell gives her students a certificate with the phrase
“When words fail, music speaks” printed on it. She keeps this piece on her piano.

LeNell says she motivates her students by sharing her love of music and encouraging them. She has only a few rules.

Students have to take a certificate she makes with her favorite musical saying on it: “When words fail, music speaks.”

She also has her students pick a favorite piece or hymn and to always be ready to perform it “so you can share your music.”

Her recital requirements have a different format. Students play solo and then play a duet or trio with fellow students.

In addition to teaching at home, LeNell taught at St. Nicholas Catholic School in Rupert 2 days a week for 15 years.

“When I was 70, the principal called and asked me to start a music program,” she says. “How could I say no? When I started, there wasn’t one sheet of music in the entire school. We had a great time with choirs and musical programs.”

Like their parents, the Griffins’ children love music. Her daughter, Diane, taught piano for several years until she no longer had time due to work. Her sons are also involved. Robert leads a choir, and Brent enjoys listening to music.

Some friends quit piano because they developed arthritis in their hands, making it painful to play, LeNell says.

“If you quit moving your fingers, it just gets worse,” she says. “My hands hurt a little when I play, but you just have to keep going. I’ll always be teaching and playing.”

In doing so, her students have become lifelong friends.

“I still keep in touch with a lot of them,” LeNell says. “Best of all, many have become piano teachers.”